But Jesus turned, looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan for your mind is not on the things of God but on the things of humans.”Mark 8:33
The eighth chapter of Mark is a true revelation of our faith experience. In it we have Peter both recognizing the truth of Jesus’ identity, on the one hand, and then totally misunderstanding it on the other. “You are the Messiah!” he declares in response to Jesus’ pointed question about how the disciples see him. But then, when Jesus teaches that the Messiah is the suffering servant of Second Isaiah, Peter takes Jesus “aside and began to rebuke him.” Now this seems quite incredible. If Peter truly understands that Jesus is the Messiah, then how arrogant he is to rebuke Jesus as he teaches that he must suffer, be rejected, and then put to death.
Yet, to be honest, it’s an arrogance with which we should readily identify. For, we are ever creating God in our own image and likeness. As Jesus says, even in the realm of faith our “mind is not on the things of God but on the things of humans.” For Adrian van Kaam, there are two basic options in response to our place in the universe: depreciative abandonment by the Mystery or appreciative abandonment to the Mystery. What we have no choice about is the reality of Mystery.
My parents both basically understood and communicated to me from my childhood that while every person is loved and significant, each of us is also very, very small in the light of the vastness of the universe. They had both very colorful and less colorful ways of expressing this, but consistently, in terms of themselves and everyone else, they perhaps most despised attitudes of arrogance. In my younger years, I, to some degree, misappropriated this teaching and formation and failed to express myself as fully as I could in both my work and relationships. I misunderstood that to appropriate the truth of our littleness did not require that we willfully hide the light we are under a bushel basket.
It is a strange paradox that it is only by giving all we have to give, by offering in our work that very best of what is ours that we can truly come to recognize our own small place in the world and abandon ourselves appreciatively to the Mystery of God. And what Jesus teaches today is that, unlike our human expectations, when we really give what we have to give as fully as we can that is as likely as not to be rejected. This rejection will bring us suffering, but it can also lead to the death of what is false in us. Peter, thinking as humans do, does not want to face the truth that as Jesus gives all he is and has that many will reject that. As we humans think, at least as this human thinks, we want to believe that once we summon the courage and generosity to give to others what we have been given, we shall be welcomed, appreciated, and praised. For, we have experiences of this when we do not offer who we truly are but rather offer what the others want of us. We are liked and welcomed as long as we are serving the cultural and personal projects of others. So, Peter imagines great approval and success for Jesus and by extension for those like himself who recognize him to be the Messiah. To the degree that this is our experience, however, we have not yet known the Mystery. The Mystery manifests in many ways, but finally always in the cross.
As Mystery, however, the cross is not merely defeat and sadness. It is not defeat but rather the way from death to life. For all of our efforts to keep the world small and manageable, to know it all, we shall inevitably be thrown into the darkness of the mystery. And when we discover ourselves there, we have two options: depreciative abandonment by the Mystery or appreciative abandonment to the Mystery. I have often felt a much greater kinship with an avowed atheist like Albert Camus than with many who speak endlessly and glibly of God. I am realizing that the reason for this is that, while his response may be different from mine, Camus dared to live in the awareness of mystery. His answer was resistance and rebellion against a mystery that he experienced in depreciative abandonment, but it was real and honest.
I am forever relearning how difficult appreciative abandonment to the Mystery truly is. For, as Peter, I think as humans do. I measure out life in accord with what we humans take to be meaningful and successful. So, when I am thrown into a very mysterious and unexpected place in terms of my life, work, and relationships, I experience anew the struggle between depreciation and appreciation. I struggle with frustration and rage, both symptoms of depreciation of others, and of life and its mystery. In time, however, I am occasionally challenged to recognize that “what is” is an expression of the personal Mystery. As the Founder of my community said, “O Lord, I cannot understand your ways, but I must adore them.” This is the difficult and often painful transition from depreciation to appreciation.
One way we refuse the Mystery is to create out of human thinking an afterlife that is the fulfillment of our limited desires and expectations. I have to admit to finding much preaching at funerals to be infantile and illusory when it suggests that heaven makes sense of and fulfills our desires in this world in the next. There is such a huge difference between the things of God and the things of humans that we have no idea of what life in God is like. Ironically enough, in our lives and world the closest we may get is the place that is darkest for us. Perhaps we best know heaven at those moments when all we can do is say “Yes” to darkness and apparent nothingness in our lives, when we feel most abandoned and estranged.
So in a few verses of today’s gospel, Peter goes from the most radiant light to the deepest darkness. It is he who recognizes the Lord. Now his whole life is to be an expression of that recognition and, perhaps as he sees it, the status that goes with that. But in that moment he has the arrogance to know how Jesus is to live and what is to be his destiny. And so he finds himself rebuked and reduced and having to, yet again, come to grips with all he does not know and recognize. In their commentary on Mark’s gospel, Daniel J. Harrington, SJ and John R. Donohue, SJ point out that in Jesus’ identifying Peter as Satan he is saying that Peter, in rejecting God’s way, has just put himself on the wrong side of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
Naturally, our minds are usually on the things of humans, and so we interpret life, as Peter was doing, in that way. The mind of God is mystery to us. It is only by facing and entering the mystery of our own lives and of our world that we can begin to take on the mind of God. Yet, we shall never, in this life, be able to take on God’s mind with clarity. Rather, it will manifest in us when we, however difficult it may be, appreciatively abandon ourselves to the Mystery, trusting in the Mystery’s ultimate beneficence.
Vespers ~ from The Wild Iris
Once I believed in you: I planted a fig tree.
Here, in Vermont, country
of no summer. It was a test: if the tree lived,
it meant you existed.
By this logic, you do not exist. Or you exist
exclusively in warmer climates,
in fervent Sicily and Mexico and California,
where are grown the unimaginable
apricot and the fragile peach. Perhaps
they see your face in Sicily, here we barely see
the hem of your garment. I have to discipline myself
to share with John and Noah the tomato crop.
If there is justice in some other world, those
like myself, whom nature forces
into lives of abstinence, should get
the lion’s share of all things, all
objects of hunger, greed being
praise of you. And no one praises
more intensely than I, with more
painfully checked desire, or more deserves
to sit at your right hand, if it exists, partaking
of the perishable, the immortal fig,
which does not travel.